By Olivier Uyttebrouck, ABQ Journal Staff Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Water managers announced an agreement Tuesday with The Nature Conservancy to help pay for forest restoration work intended to protect the San Juan-Chama watershed at a cost to the utility of $1 million over five years.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority also unveiled a new $3.5 million solar array intended to cut the utility’s electrical costs.
Water managers called the $200,000 annual payment to the conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund an investment in the health of the watershed that now provides most of the metro area’s water needs.
“It is kind of an insurance policy for protection of our watersheds,” John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer, said at a news conference at the utility’s drinking water treatment plant at 6000 Alexander NE.
Wildfires can destroy forests, leaving the watershed charred and vulnerable to damaging floods, Stomp said. Flooding after the 2011 Las Conchas Fire dumped tons of soot into the Rio Grande, forcing the utility to shut down its water treatment plant for several weeks, he said.
The nonprofit conservancy has targeted 600,000 acres in the headwaters of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama for tree thinning intended to make the forests less vulnerable to wildfire. Other projects are intended to restore land scarred by past fires and restore streams.
“The reality today is we have more frequent and severe wildfires,” said Laura McCarthy, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy. Thinning overcrowded trees and removing undergrowth that serves as fuel makes forests safer and healthier, she said.
In 2016, treated river water provided 68 percent of the metro area’s water needs, Stomp said. He predicted that river water this year will provide about three-quarters of the utility’s water supply.
The water treatment plant was built in 2008 to allow the utility to treat river water made available by the San Juan-Chama project, which diverts water from three Colorado River Basin tributaries, augmenting flows in the Rio Grande Basin.
The utility’s new 11-acre, 1.5-megawatt solar array is expected to provide 10 percent of the power needed to operate the water treatment plant, officials estimated. The array is expected to cut the utility’s power costs by $6 million over 25 years, officials said.
A future solar project is expected to provide an additional 1 megawatt of electricity by next year. A megawatt provides enough power for about 800 households.